INSIDE PUTIN’S HEAD: The Crisis in Russia and Ukraine and Worst-Case Putin Scenarios

Photo Putin Eurasia Strategy

by Gordon M. Hahn

January 2015 


The present Russian-NATO proxy war in Ukraine along with the Russian-Western economic cold war could destabilize Russia’s political metastability and even topple Putin and his system. Assume for a moment that Putin really is pushed into a corner. Imagine Putin’s foreign reserves begin to run out cutting into his popularity, and/or he loses his battle with the West over Ukraine because of Russia’s economic weaknesses in conditions of falling oil and natural gas prices and Western sanctions. Political and economic crises mount, and the foundations of his system begin to shake. Putin the winner has become Putin the disappointing loser.

The regime elite begins to split; some defect to the opposition. The latter begins to mount successively larger and more turbulent demonstrations led by a Maidan-like mix of democrats, angered by economic dislocation, and ultra-nationalists, disgruntled by a failure to annex or protect the Donbass. All this reaches a crescendo – a perfect storm – in the runup to, during or just after the 2018 presidential election. It is around elections when corrupt authoritarian systems are often challenged because of limited levels of public trust in the electoral process. The emperor has no clothes.

In such a situation how would Putin and his political order likely react? What would his options be and which among them would he most likely choose? In short, what would Putin try to do to salvage his rule?

Although Putin is not an ultra-nationalist dictator or would-be imperialist, he is likely to err on the side of increasingly authoritarian and expansionist measures to protect his power and system, which he regards as necessary to achieve the growth of Russian power. Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to maintain Russian influence in Ukraine. Therefore, if pushed into a corner in Ukraine, internationally, or at home, Putin is likely to crackdown on domestic opposition and foreign economic and political elements inside Russia and undertake high-risk foreign policy measures like the Crimea annexation in order to save face. If Putin overreaches, the West overreacts, or a ‘black swan’ event occurs at such a pivot point, war with the West – perhaps a second Crimean war – would be at hand.

Sistema and Metastability

Despite Putin’s approval ratings of over 80 percent, Russia’s political order is vulnerable to sudden de-stabilization. Putin’s system is therefore meta-stable, meaning its stability is highly tentative and easily destabilized because it rests on too few pillars. The removal of even one support can bring the edifice crashing down. Almost all other political leaders – with the exceptions of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu – enjoy little to no popularity; only the army and Russian Orthodox Church enjoy a modicum of trust.

Russia’s system leans on two or three pillars at most: Putin’s charismatic authority and his corrupt, patrimonial system of patronage networks, which holds the elite and part of society close to him. In turn, these two pillars are dependent on high oil and gas revenues, which for more than a decade have satisfied the rising socioeconomic expectations of both the elite and society at-large. The recent years’ oil and natural gas boom has given Putin domestic popularity (83 percent approval rating as of the same) and sufficient levels of foreign reserves (over $400 billion as of mid-November) to maintain it up to, but not necessarily through the potentially destabilizing federal parliamentary and presidential election cycle in 2016-18.

Not only did oil and gas profits pump up Putin’s authority and popularity ratings, but they were glue that hold Putin’s so-called ‘sistema’ – together. Putin controls a predominantly authoritarian hybrid regime that possesses some democratic elements and space for opposition groups. ‘Sistema’ largely describes the political economy of the regime and state, which consist of a patrimonial or clan-based network of patronage networks. These networks are coalesced and held together by their relatively balanced access to interconnected rents and property holdings provided by the state and the chief patron, Putin the Arbiter, who controls, regulates, and balances the network clans’ access to budget funds and state companies.[1] However, ‘sistema’ suffers from metastability because once the feeding trough becomes unaccessible or empties, a regime split and full-blown regime crisis can follow quickly. Sistema’s sources of stability become “the source of sistema’s vulnerability.” Frustration (over corruption, legal arbitrariness, and the inability to modernize and protect clients’ property) “results in the ‘exit strategy’ of national elites, legal nihilism, and individual and collective revolts” especially during a regime crisis.[2]

Russia’s patrimonial political economy and political system, which Putin finished construction of by the mid-2000s, maintained metastability for more than a decade. Until 2013 the influx of oil and gas profits managed to compensate for Russia’s unrestructured economy, burdened by an overly large, corrupt, and non-innovative state sector and a relatively weak and uncompetitive industrial manufacturing base. However, when oil and gases fell, growth slowed to a trickle. Capital flight accelerated, and the ruble began to weaken. This posed a potential threaten to Putin’s high popularity ratings, but the West offered him the opportunity to manufacture the patriotic ‘miracle’ of the Crimean annexation or reunification, which reinforced his ratings and authority.

But oil and gas prices continued to decline, and Western sanctions were added to the mix after Crimea. This combination collapsed the ruble and drove inflation upwards, forming a perfect economic storm by year’s end. That storm risks a regime crisis as it threatens to undermine Putin’s largely charismatic (rather than rational-legal) authority. Unlike the traditional authority base of monarchies or the rational-legal authority of bureaucratic authoritarian, single-party dominant regimes and rule of law democracies, charismatic authority rests on the continuous production of unexpected, ‘miraculous’ or at least impressive successes.

Once sistema’s metastability is undermined, threats to Putin’s authoritarian, patrimonial system can emerge both ‘from above’ (inside the state and Putin’s network of state enterprises and state-tied oligarchic clans) and/or ‘from below’ (society and opposition). From above, the decline in profits and confiscation of property in the West threatens the well-being of Putin’s state oligarchic allies (the Rotenbergs, Kovalchuks, Timchenkos, etc.) and their patronage networks at some point could lead to defections of key allies from Putin’s camp, a regime split, and perhaps machinations, even a coup, to replace Putin.

From below, inflation could eat away at the middle class, which politically is divided between pro-regime groups (many of which are tied to the state oligarchs, the state and/or Putin’s United Russia party), on the one hand, and opposition democratic groups, on the other. It can also drive angst among the lumpenproletariat, who will find it difficult to survive in conditions of a shrinking economic pie. Many of these people will gravitate to and strengthen communist and ultra-nationalist opposition groups. In short, economic decline can drive apolitical, independent, and even some pro-regime elements into Russia’s myriad but weak opposition groups, mobilizing them against the ruling party just as the 2016-18 federal election cycle hits.

The regime is now entering a pre-crisis situation, which would be characterized by significant social turmoil, regime splits and defections. That the economic crisis could reach proportions grave enough to spark a full-blown political crisis is evident from recent projections for 2015 issued by Russia’s Ministry for Eeconomic Development. It forecasts a 3 percent contraction of GDP, inflation up to 12 percent, and a 6 percent fall in real incomes.[3] If this continues into the federal election cycle beginning in 2016 with the Duma elections, Russia likely would face serious political unrest.

A failing economy could be just one component helping to forge a critical consensus that could undermine Putin. Foreign policy failures, both emerging and potential, could further undermine his authority both from ‘above’ and ‘below.’ These could include a combination of some of the following. First, a perceived defeat in Ukraine (Donbass’s military defeat and or a large-scale massacre of Donbass forces and/or civilians, for example) would be devastating for Putin given the place it occupies in the Russian mind, especially that which it has occupied in the last year both in Russian foreign policy and state propaganda. Second, a foreign policy humiliation in Ukraine, Syria, or elsewhere would be devastating for Putin’s image if Russian elites or a large portion of the public perceived it as dedeat at the hands of the West, especially the U.S. Third, a humiliation rooted in Russia’s unequal relationship with its ‘strategic partner’ China could have similar repercussions – for example, revelations of unequal conditions in oil and gas contracts with Beijing or a shift in the balance of power within SCO that clearly marks Moscow as the second fiddle. Fourth, a comprehensive though not necessarily complete isolation from Europe involving travel or other restrictions against Russians would pique Russians’ feelings of relative deprivation and throw into question the economic and lifestyle costs incurred what then come to be seen as Putin’s ‘miscalculations’ in Ukraine. Fifth, a major terrorist attack or campaign could perform a similar delegitimizing function or aggravate the sense of failure created by any of those mentioned above.

The vulnerability of the system’s metastability has been revealed twice since Putin decided in September 2011 to run for the presidency in place of Dmitry Medvedev. Both episodes surrounded elections: the winter 2011-12 mass protest demonstrations after the December 2011 Duma elections and the Moscow mayoral election. During the former, mass protests were supplemented by some elite defections, such as that of Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin.[4] The latter case, in which opposition candidate Alexei Navalnyi won a surprising 29 percent of the vote – seemed to indicate that Putin’s authority was on the decline but only within some sectors of society – namely the so-called ‘creative class’ which only predominates in Moscow. However, it recently emerged that there was covert government financial support given to Navlanyi’s political campaign provided in the form of state grants.[5]

Demonstrations before or in reaction to excessively falsified election results in 2016 or 2018 could topple the regime ‘from below,’ especially if the societal opposition is joined or clandestinely supported by defectors from the state. Instability could also emerge ‘from below’ in the form of protests or conflict not aimed at the state and regime but rather as tensions, even violence between statist (especially ultra-nationalist) and liberal elements in society. Internal polling commissioned by the government indicates the “temperature” and “intolerance” within society is peaking as a result of the Ukraine crisis and state propaganda.[6]

Either of these developments – in addition to any economic and/or foreign policy failures, particularly one in Ukraine – could further undermine Putin’s authority within sistema’s power networks. In such case, disenchanted regime elements might then choose not to defect from the state and seek to remove Putin ‘from above’ through some kind of coup. Already some top leaders – including military-industrial complex tsar Viktor Chemezov, who is charged with managing the few liberal-oriented Kremlin political projects – are counseling Putin to reverse the increasingly statist domestic course accompanying the Ukrainian crisis.[7] Leaders like Chemezov are prime candidates for defection from a teetering regime, especially if there is a strong liberal opposition with which to unite.

Who Is Mr. Putin?

In order to answer the question regarding Putin’s possible response to any of the abovementioned challenges to his power, we need to understand what drives Putin. In particular, we need to understand how he views himself in the context of Russia within both time and space – that is, in terms of Russian history and Russia’s place in today’s world.

There are several roles Putin self-identifies with and sees himself playing.[8] Hill and Gaddy concluded in an interesting 2012 article and subsequent book that Putin came to see himself as Putin the Outsider having been isolated within the KGB, in far away Dresden as the USSR crumbled, in ‘provincial’ St. Petersburg cut off from the locus of power in Moscow, and as the only lawyer in the Ozero group of businessman, who yearned to rise to power in the metropole and set things right. Putin the Outsider learned that he should not lend his loyalty to any particular ideology, system of government or leader but rather to the state itself. Putin’s lazer-like focus on the well-being of Russia rather than a particular system or ideology explains the absence of any Putin ideology in his presidential campaigns or his Yedinaya Rossiya party (until his third presidential term, see below).

Hill’s and Gaddy’s Putin the “survivalist” Putin combines with Putin the Outsider to fix in his mind that only he and his pragmatic, balanced policies can secure Russia’s stability, sovereignty, security, and status as a great power so it can counterbalance the destabilizing effects of a hubristic, interventionist West – the bull in the international china shop. However, Putin’s pragmatism and counterbalancing should not be interpreted to mean that Putin reject ideology or the proactive pursuit of a Russian foreign policy vision.

Putin the Historian and Enlightened ‘Conservative’ Despot

Putin the Historian increasingly is defining Putin’s foundation – his world view and ideology. Putin the Historian informs him that by history and tradition, Russia is, will, and indeed must be a great power. Geopolitical history teaches him that both West and East can threaten Russia. Democracy is fine, but it is potentially destabilizing in a country with Russia’s territorial expanse, unwelcoming climate, ethnic and religious diversity, and complex history of revolts, revolutions, internecine strife, and foreign invasions. The fear of revolution such as those in 1917 and 1991 informed the early Putin era’s mini-cult around late Tsarist Russia’s reformist but harsh anti-revolutionary Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin. The recent placement of a monument to Tsar Alexander I – the antipode both to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia to spread ‘democracy’ and to the 1824 Decembrist Revolt by officers infected with the democratic dream after their chasing Napoleon west back to Paris – underscores the point. For Putin, Russian history teaches that if stability and democracy are mutually exclusive goals, then the former should always trump the latter.

In this sense and others, Putin is conservative. Contrary to Hill’s and Gaddy’s Putin “the free marketer” (and to Western conservatism in general), today’s Putin the ‘Conservative’ has doubts about the appropriateness of the West’s democratic republicanism and free market order. These doubts have been deepened if not firmly implanted by American pro-democracy interventionism (which also has a Western liberal-leftist component). He has been trying to position himself as the leader of the conservative movement globally – especially in Europe – standing in opposition to gay rights, hyper-secularism, untethered immigration policy and, in general, a perceived Western chaos. In ways, Putin is, like Catherine the Great, Putin the Enlightened Despot. Putin becomes Catherine the Great stamping out the Pugachev Revolt or exiling Alexander Radischev. He is Alexander I rolling back Napoleon’s quest to spread democracy to nations still not ready in whole or in part. In other words, Putin the Historian has taught Putin to relish his role as Putin the Quasi-Conservative and Putin the Enlightened Despot.

If Putin the Historian informs Putin’s ideology and goals, then Putin the Spymaster and Putin the Lawyer inform the Russian president’s strategy and tactics. This is true for both domestic and foreign politics.

Putin the Spymaster

Putin the Spymaster informs Putin that politics are in good part carried out by deception and stealth. “Putin’s system is better thought of as a soft-authoritarian form of rule, established and maintained by stealth-like violation of the fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law.”[9] Rather than mass arrests and comprehensive bans, there are selective arrests and legal limits imposed to constrict democratic space. Judicious, slight-of-hand use of ‘administrative resources’ produces the desired election outcomes. A good part of the stealth is provided by using crises and gradualism in implementing policy and operations as well as by deploying legality as a veneer to provide both political cover and legitimacy for those of his policies that roll back democracy.[10] This is where Putin the Lawyer plays his part.

Putin the Lawyer

Putin the Lawyer informs Putin that in order to preserve order and have legitimacy, both his foreign and domestic policies must be based in the law or the veneer of law. Putin stabilized the Russian state by gradually adopting a series of laws that weakened Russia’s hyper-federative system, regional presidents and governors, and the private oligarchs during his first two terms.[11]

In foreign policy, the Spymaster was evident in the exquisitely executed ‘hybrid war’ and stealth occupation of Crimea without war and virtually without a shot fired or a drop of blood spilled. The Lawyer’s role was evident in the effort to legitimize Crimea’s annexation by the March 2014 referendum and references to the precedent of Kosovo’s 2008 independence and the 2010 International Court of Justice ruling legalizing Kosovo’s secession.

Putin the Arbiter

The role of Putin the Arbiter emerged as he began introduce order after the Boris Yeltsin era of post-Soviet chaos. Putin, according to Hill and Gaddy, chose the role of an arbiter for the “oligarchs” who had privatized the state and were ripping it apart as they fought among themselves.[12] Lacking any real power base inside the Kremlin, he promoted trusted St. Petersburgers, especially those from the FSB and other siloviki, and quickly established himself as Number One. As such, Putin cannot dictate his will and ensure its full implementation by the notoriously corrupt and arbitrary Russian bureaucracy, and he must balance and counterbalance the various patronage networks. It is he who makes and bears responsibility for all final decisions he wishes to decide, especially in foreign policy. He remains atop the patronage pyramid not only because he has proven himself a capable leader but also because he has been lucky. High oil, gas and other commodity prices from his first two term through the Medvedev interregnum afforded him the means to retain the loyalty of the various bureaucratic, sectoral, and clan interests as well as delay difficult but necessary social and economic reforms (such as pension reform and restructuring and diversifying the economy). Thus, in reality Putin may not be all that more capable than peers such as Dmitry Medvedev or Sergei Ivanov.

The Composite Putin and His Goals

Putin is a Russian patriot with moderate nationalist tendencies in foreign affairs and statist ones domestically; his chief goal is a secure and strong Russia. Domestically speaking, Putin is neither a democrat nor a dictator. He is a statist-, authoritarian-inclined “hybrid regime” ruler. His highest value is neither the sovereignty of the people over the state nor his personal power over the state and people. His strong inclination is to preserve order, stability and security. This leads him to err on the authoritarian side. Putin rejects totalitarianism and lofty ideology and is neither repelled nor impressed by democracy and authoritarianism. He sees himself as the exception to the rule among Russian officials; the enlightened one who knows what is in the Russian state’s and people’s interest and is capable of realizing their fullest potential.

It follows from this that if Putin faces a domestic or foreign threat to his rule, he is likely to err on the side of increasingly authoritarian and expansionist measures to protect his power and system, which he regards as necessary to achieve the growth of Russian power. However, the liberalization under his hand-picked inter-regent, Dmitry Medvedev, from 2008 to 2012 shows that Putin is not averse to changes in course or democratic development, as long as stability is not threatened as a result.[13] This demonstrates that Putin is not interested in authoritarian methods for their own sake but rather because they seem to serve his goal of a modern, globally competitive Russia.

In foreign policy, Putin sees Russia as the regional power in central Eurasia. His vision and goal is Russia as a global power – the core of one of the poles in a multipolar international system. Russia, in his view, has and ought to strengthen its own Eurasian sphere of influence – hence, the Customs and Eurasian Economic Unions. These goals require a modern competitive economy, and a population largely satisfied with life in Russia because they enjoy moderate-to-high levels of socioeconomic well-being and political, civil and human rights.

Putin does not seek the restoration of the USSR or any imperial project. Actions that have been perceived as aggressive and expansionist by the West in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014 were defensive in nature. In both cases, Western-backed elements in countries on Russia’s border forcefully seized power against Moscow’s fundamental security interests. American and European power facilitated the overthrow of more or less pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. More fundamentally, the crises in Ukraine and U.S.-Russian relations could be the death knell for his political and personal fortunes but also for the transformations he envisaged for Russia. Thus, the stakes for him could not be higher.

Overall, Putin is a rational actor, but when provoked and especially when he perceives he has been betrayed he tends to overreact, pushing the envelope of possible responses. This was on display was on display when he annexed Crimea after pushing Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich to sign the Western- and Russian-brokered February 20, 2014 Kiev agreement only to see the opposition break the agreement and illegally seize power during Russia’s highly successful Sochi Olympic Games.

Putin’s Imperatives

Russia’s semi-isolation plays to Putin the outsider and survivalist. If pushed into a corner internationally or at home, Putin is unlikely to go without a fight, surrendering to domestic pressures to resign, re-democratize or significantly privatize the state sector. Rather, he is likely to crackdown on domestic opposition and foreign economic and political elements inside Russia and undertake high-risk foreign policy measures like the Crimea annexation that could provoke war with the West. In particular, Putin is determined to maintain Russian influence in Ukraine. His suspicions of the West – often reinforced by Western actions – preclude the possibility of Putin’s acceptance of Ukraine’s entry into NATO and Kiev’s military reassertion of sovereignty over Donbass or (less likely) Crimea. Ukraine’s historical, economic, and geostrategic importance to Russia make it a vital security interest for Moscow. Russian-Ukrainian social and geographical closeness give Moscow distinct advantages over the West that Putin will be tempted to press in the conflict.

Putin’s Options

In a scenario in which Putin’s authority or system were severely weakened, what actions would Putin be most likely to take shore up his power at home? What steps would he be willing to take to stake out a victory in Russia’s contest with the West in Eurasia, most pivotally in Ukraine?

Eurasian Options

The international correlation of forces will not allow Putin to resolve a domestic legitimacy crisis in the international arena beyond Eurasia. Russia lacks the levers to trump US and NATO power globally. Efforts to make BRICS more robust would resonate in Russian society or compensate elite business losses only at the margins, and a radical bifurcation of the global economy based on a Sino-Russian or (less likely) BRICS abandonment of the dollar would also reduce opportunities for Russian trade. Any Moscow effort to scuttle a deal on Iran’s nuclear program also will not suffice and could actually have blowback effects for Russian national security.[14]

However, the correlation of interests and forces in Eurasia, in particular the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, is another story. Russia will brook no foreign interventions near its borders. As far back as 1994 – that is, even during his democratic period – Putin held emotionally to the patriotic position that the “fate” of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in the former Soviet space “is a question of war and peace” for Moscow.[15] A decade later, as Russia’s president, Putin repeated the point.[16] Putin’s commitment to Russia the great Eurasian power and the fate of ethnic compatriots in the former USSR meets his self-interest in buttressing his political authority. Moreover, Putin has the competive advantage over the West in Ukraine because of Russia’s geographical proximity. The region plays to Russian strengths, since it has networks, knowledge, and short supply lines to its advantage. Thus, there is no reason for him to compromise Russia’s vital interests either in Ukraine or anywhere else along its borders or central Eurasia.

The foreign policy success that would bolster Putin most domestically would be a Crimea-like military-political victory in, or an annexation of the Donbass or even the more expansive Novorossiya project. Affirmation of Ukraine’s non-aligned non-NATO status would provide the former. The Donbass would have important side benefits with its coal and natural gas assets. Occupation or annexation of the Donbass might be played if rapprochement with the West becomes completely out of the question in the long-term. If plans move forward to include Ukraine in NATO, then Putin will achieve a small victory by ensuring the independence of or annexing the LNR and DNR and thereby establish a buffer zone between Russia and NATO. He could try a more aggressive play by helping Donbass forces move into the south and create a corridor connecting to Crimea, threatening Moldova’s Transdniestr, and forcing the West to take the domestic political and economic risk of increased military expenditures and political mobilization to counter his move.

Putin might try to parlay such a victory or escalation in Ukraine into negotiations on a grand compromise in the form of Western recognition of Russia’s sphere of influence in central Eurasia or even new security architecture for Europe and Eurasia. Some influential European and Russian actors are already pursuing ways to open broad European-Eurasian security talks.[17] German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently offered Putin a free trade zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok in return for a settlement in Ukraine. Putting oil and gas supplies to Europe in doubt would be another way Moscow might play a high stakes game to nudge the West into negotiating a broad security agreement. Putin took a step in this direction when he abandoned the South Stream pipeline and announced Russia would no longer transport oil and gas through Ukraine and southeaster Europe and would replace them with a northern pipeline route.

In the event of defeat in Ukraine that undermines his authority at home, Putin might counter through asymmetrical escalation within the Eurasian region. Candidates for such a gambit would be the breakaway regions of already discussed Transdniestr or in the South Caucasus. However, annexation or military aggression is not likely unless provoked. Regarding the Caucasus, however difficult, Moscow could aggressively pursue a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and entice Azerbaijan to join the Eurasian Union along with Armenia. There might be similar opportunities in Central Asia after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Possible options in Eurasia with geopolitical implications extending more globally would be to seek to offer more generous conditions in order to expand not only the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) but also BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in order to contest US influence in various regions. New candidates for the EEU could be found across the former USSR with more generous conditions and even beyond the, for example, Turkey, Iran and Mongolia. They as well as India or Pakistan could become full members of SCO, as could Afghanistan. By bringing NATO member and long-time EU applicant Turkey into the EEU or BRICS, Putin would pull off a major coup against the West.

Global Asymmetrical Escalation

Although not likely to directly score him many points at home, Putin is likely seek to expand Russian economic, political, and military ties globally and perhaps undertake targeted asymmetrical escalation to send a message to the West during any Cold War 2.0.  Putin is already taking measures in pre-crisis circumstances to cut ties or at least reduce Russia’s reliance on the West.

The Kremlin is implementing what Russian political scientist Dmitry Trenin has recommended as a “diversified” Asian (non-Western) pivot: one not just towards China but all of Asia. In fact, Putin is likely to execute a “diversified non-Western pivot” encompassing all non-Western states, including the ‘Orient’ writ large (Asian east and Islamic south) as well as Africa and Latin America. Recent Russian high-level trips to, and visits from such states since the onset of Western sanctions include: Turkey, Vietnam, Mongolia, India, North Korea, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, China (several times), Uzbekistan, and India. Putin’s pivot might also include Western states with the least aggressive stances towards Russia such as Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Italy.

In a period of true crisis politics after a defeat in Ukraine or destabilization of his system, Putin is likely to undertake assymmetrical escalation to directly confront Western power. This could come in the Western Hemisphere as a tit-for-tat response to NATO expansion to Russia’s borders. For example, the Kremlin might seek to institutionalize a particular issue area – perhaps even military or defense – involving countries with leftist and anti-American leaderships such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Equador, and Cuba.

In response to NATO’s moves in Eastern Europe or Ukraine, Putin could very well establish new bases or beef up existing ones in western Russia, increase the contingent of forces in Crimea, and/or deploy new weapons types or additional conventional or nuclear forces in Kaliningrad. Putin might pursue all of these or other measures in a global full-court press. In extremis in a Cold War 2.0, Moscow could cease cooperation in the war against jihadism, despite its potential for destabilizing Russia, and even funnel financial or other assistance to jihadis planning attacks in the West.[18]

Domestic Options

Domestically, a Putin under threat would be sure to crackdown on the domestic opposition – democratic and ultra-nationalist alike – especially if they mobilized to the level of mass demonstrations. The level of political liberalization or democratization in Russia historically rises or falls in line with the level of comity in Russo-Western relations. In extremis, Putin would be sure to purge Russia of all remaining foreign NGOs and businesses operating in the country. Since the Ukrainian crisis began a year ago Putin has signaled this direction by limiting NGO activity further, capping foreign ownership of media outlets to 20 percent, sanctions against EU agricultural products, and floating the Rotenberg law that would have allowed businesses hurt by Western sanctions to apply to the Russian government for retaliatory expropriations of foreign assets. The Rotenberg law’s passage in one of three required Duma votes was a shot over the bow in this regard for Western companies with holdings in Russia.


Putin’s system may soon be under real existential threat for the first time. In the winter 2011-12 demonstrations the system’s economic and political fundamentals were sound – not now. In circumstances of crisis politics with his survival at risk, Putin will push the envelope – as he did in Crimea – and perhaps beyond the breaking point. He will crackdown on the domestic opposition and purge Russia of foreign entities, institutionalizing isolation from the West to the extent necessary. In foreign relations, defeat in Ukraine is unacceptable, and Putin can be expected to repeatedly up the ante in any escalation of the crisis. The same may be true in the event that domestic problems such as a collapse of the ruble or full economic depression challenge his and his system’s survival. This could also provoke him into one of several optional gambits in Ukraine, global confrontation with the West from Eurasia to the Western Hemisphere, or asymmetrical escalation elsewhere in Eurasia or beyond against Western interests.

Given the above, the West would do well to beef up its military preparedness, step up efforts to negotiate a settlement in Ukraine, and put an end to sanctions and other measures that might lead to state breakdown in chemical-, biological-, radiological-, and nuclear-laden Russia. Armageddon was averted during the Soviet regime and state breakdown in 1991. There is no guarantee a second brush with Armageddon will end well. In this light, the West needs to ask itself a fundamental question: Is Ukraine’s membership in NATO and/or the EU worth such a risk?


[1] Alena V. Ledeneva, Can Russia Modernise?: Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 242.

[2] Alena V. Ledeneva, Can Russia Modernise?: Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 242.

[3] “Minekonomrazvitya znachitleno ukhidshilo prognozy otnositelno rossiiskoi ekonomiki,” Ekho Moskvy, 31 January 2015,

[4] Gordon M. Hahn, “Perestroika 2.0: Towards Non-Revolutionary Regime Transformation in Russia?,” Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 28, No. 4 (October-December 2012), pp. 472-515.

[5] Anastasiya Kashevarova, “Kreml’ taino finansiroval Naval’nogo,” Life News, 6 November 2014,

[6] “Aleksei Venediktov: ‘V Rossii rezko vozrosla agressiya’, Eto stali ponimat’ i vo vlasti. Ya ne pro politiku s nimi razgovarivayu, Ya govoryu: davaite sob’em temperaturu’,” Novaya gazeta, No. 126, 10 November 2014,

[7] Ehko Moskvy Editor-in-Chief Aleksei Venediktov states in a November Novaya gazeta interview that “people in charge of certain sectors, including the military-industrial complex, understand that (Russia) can withstand an arms race and are trying to convince him (Putin) that there are other options.” See “Aleksei Venediktov: ‘V Rossii rezko vozrosla agressiya’. Eto stali ponimat’ i vo vlasti. Ya ne pro politiku s nimi razgovarivayu, Ya govoryu: davaite sob’em temperaturu’,” Novaya gazeta, No. 126, 10 November 2014, Chemezov runs what appears to be the Kremlin’s liberal project, Aleksandr Prokhorov and his Civic Front party. Yevgenii Minchenko “’Politbyuro 2.0’ i Postkrymskaya Rossiya,” Minchenko Consulting, 22 October 2014, His wife runs the relatively liberal media outlets, the RosBalt news agency and the Saint Petersburg newspaper Peterburgskii Chas Pik. Chemezov is said to work closely with liberal Deputy Prime Minister Arkadii Dvorkovich and Kremlin outsider billionaire politicians and businessmen Zivadzhudin Magomedov and Suleiman Kerimov. Laurynas Kasčiūnas, Marius Laurinavičius, and Vytautas Keršanskas, “Vladimir Putin’s Pyramid of Rule: Who Really Governs Russia?,”, 4 August 2014,

[8] My approach is an adaptation of Hill’s and Gaddy’s with a slightly different focus or interpretation. Rather than concentrating on a psychological portrai per se, I elaborate the several personalities and roles Putin himself sees himself as expressing. Hill and Gaddy highlight “multiple real Mr. Putins,” six identities that constitute his personality: (1) the Statist, (2) the History Man, (3) the Survivalist, (4) the Outsider, (5) the Free Marketer, and (6) the Case Officer. See Fiona Hill and Clifford D. Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2012).

[9] Gordon M. Hahn, “Managed Democracy?: The Establishment of Stealth Authoritarianism in St. Petersburg,” Demokratizatsiya, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 2004, pp. 185-232,

[10] Putin’s stealthy approach was evident already during Putin’s first term. See Gordon M. Hahn, “Stealth Authoritarianism: Setting the Stage for the Federal Election Cycle in St. Petersburg,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Moscow Center, 2003 Duma Elections – St. Petersburg, 5 November 2003, See also Gordon M. Hahn, “Managed Democracy?: The Establishment of Stealth Authoritarianism in St. Petersburg,” Demokratizatsiya, 12, 2 (Spring 2004): 185-232,; “Putin’s ‘Stealth Authoritarianism’ and Russia’s Second Revolutionary Wave,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Regional Analysis, Vol. 4, Nos. 14-16, 16, 23, and 28 April 2004,; and Gordon M. Hahn, “Putin’s ‘Stealth Authoritarianism,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Russian Political Weekly, 21 April 2004,

[11] For example, the October 2002 Dubrovka and September 2004 Beslan terrorist massacres were used to centralize power away from the regions through a series of legal amendments carried out over several years. One measure allowed Putin to remove regional chief executives and parliaments if they issued directives or passed laws that violated federal laws or Russia’s constitution.

[12] Hill and Clifford D. Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, p. 207.

[13] Gordon M. Hahn, “Medvedev, Putin, and Perestroika 2.0,” Demokratizatsiya, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Summer 2010), pp. 228-59 and Gordon M. Hahn, “The Russian Federation in 2012: From ‘Thaw’ and ‘Reset’ to ‘Freeze’,” Asian Survey, Vol. 53, No. 1 (2013), pp. 214-23.

[14] Nevertheless, on November 11th, Russia signed a contract to build two nuclear reactors in Iran and announced plans for a total of nine. Coming less than two weeks before a deadline for a deal on the country’s disputed nuclear weapons development program, Russia seemed to signal unwillingness to break the logjam in the talks on a deal that would need Russia to conclude another agreement with Teheran ensuring the shipment to Russia of spent nuclear fuel. In January, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu signed a military cooperation deal with Teheran, signaling Russia’s further turn east.

[15] Michael Stuermer, Putin and the Rise of Russia (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008), p. 43.

[16] Stuermer, Putin and the Rise of Russia, p. 50.

[17] Paul Taylor, “European Diplomats Seek Security Overhaul to End East-West Crisis,” Reuters, 10
November 2014.

[18] The Caucasus Emirate group, based in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus, has developed close with the Islamic State, Al Qa`ida, and other groups comprising the global jihadi revolutionary alliance over the last few years, and those ties are constantly deepening. See Gordon M. Hahn, The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014); Gordon M. Hahn, The Caucasus Emirate and Other North Caucasus, Russian and Eurasian Mujahedin in Syria, unpublished paper, August 2014; Gordon M. Hahn, The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin and the Fitna in the Levant, unpublished paper, October 2014; and Gordon M. Hahn, “The Islamic State Splits the Caucasus Emirate,” Fair Observer, 23 January 2015,


  1. Interesting no comment on a Baltic States option for Putin if he is confronted with a severe diplomatic or strategic defeat. This is the scenario that everyone is worried about because its the scenario most likely to lead to a direct military conflict between Russia and NATO. Given the ethnic-Russian population in these states, surely special warfare against the Baltic states, backed up with a massing of Russian military forces across the border, including nuclear forces deployed into Kaliningrad, would be one scenario that should be considered.

    All the options you have considered are interesting, and certainly warrant further consideration, but none would necessarily see the risk of war with NATO (and all that goes with that in terms of potential nuclear escalation). I’m sure neither side wants such a war given the potential consequences, but if Putin judges NATO to be divided or lacking resolve, particuarly in the face of Russian nuclear sabre rattling, I’d not discount the prospect of a sudden move to grab territory inside the Baltic States, with nuclear brinkmanship to deter a NATO military response. In doing so, and if NATO failed to act, NATO’s credibility as an alliance would be in tatters. To me that would be a huge victory for Putin that would achieve much of his goals of weakening the west and strengthening Russia.

  2. The big crisis is in Kiev.
    Failure to start a Russia/nato war leaves it with nowhere to go but internal vengeance. This in fact is a much greater threat to the EU/US than to Russia as Kiev turns on parts of Ukraine that will be much harder to identify with Russia.
    Indeed we could well see nato sending in troops to Ukraine to protect citizens from Kiev (the irony the irony)

    The next crisis is in Nato which has failed to provoke war with Russia.
    Why Nato now?

    And the next crisis will be in Washington if they ever get a President that understands foreign policy and understands what the US role in the world should be.

    Putin is way down on the list of concerns. Russia even further. 16 years, a change of leadership is due. It should be welcomed as a chance for Russia to advance further, not feared.

  3. I very appreciate reading your extensive essay on Putin and his perceived attitudes and perceived policies. Some items I sadly missed, which to my view will determine the future events in Russia and its relationship with the West’s new “friends”.
    * Research by anthropologists and experience from the past demonstrate, that in times of hardship, crisis and war nations close their ranks and follow their leader, right or wrong. It is a survival mechanism we can observe with all species which live in groups and define their territory. Therefore I feel that you push your idea of people turning against Putin too far.
    * In the days after the reunification with Crimea newspapers reported, that other Black Sea countries offered the USA to provide them with the facilities for the supreme regional headquarters they intended (probably still intend) to establish at Crimea once Ukraine acceded to the West’s security system and the Russian bases had (have) been dismantled. It seems, that Putin got the scent of it. He moved first.
    * Analyzing the recent sequence of events, ever so often a heavy delegation of the State Department and the Pentagon visited Kiev on an official mission, a couple of days after their departure Poroshenko orders his army to go on the offensive – regardless the Minsk agreements. Last time was on January 22nd 2015. We all watched him officially announcing the offensive on TV. When the going gets rough, he accuses the rebels of violating the Minsk agreements, and insists on maintaining the truce.
    * I conclude, that USA plays the military card, keeps itself in the shadows and employs Merkel as its proxy. Without USA joining the Minsk negotiations or any other peace process, there won’t be a solution. The more sanction by USA an EU, the closer the Russians will contract around Putin.

  4. This is the voice of sanity and a welcome change from the muddled thinking and bungling shown by European politicians and American hawks over the Ukraine. I have not the slightest doubt that Russia views a NATO expansion to some 300 kilometers from Moscow (at the closest point on the Ukraine’s Eastern border) as an intolerable threat to its vital interests. If the West knows what is good for it, it will accept the Ukraine as a non-aligned buffer zone. Trying to wrench the Ukraine into the NATO and EU orbit is likely to lead to a regional war and may even end in a world one.

  5. Dr. Hahn, since you demand maximum accuracy from experts in your “Another Rusology Fail”, let’s apply the same standard to the opening phrase of this piece, namely, that the current war is characterized by you as “Russian-NATO proxy war’. Since in the same phrase you also mention Cold War, one can assume that the proxy war you are talking about is hot, actual war. The reality of the war in Ukraine is such that Russia does fight proxy-kind of war in and against Ukraine. Meanwhile, the US is still hesitant whether to engage in such war at all. Whatever strictly military support has been provided to Ukraine by the US so far, it is of such negligible scope that it fails to allow a reasonable observer to qualify this war as a proxy (hot) war for both the US and Russia.

    1. The US is sending non-lethal supplies and advisors and has approved training. This is a proxy relationship with Kiev. Also, you have raised a rather minor point compared to Goble’s ourtight lying by misrepresenting what someone said.

      1. I agree that Goble misrepresented the origin of the Novaya Gazeta document. And yes, you are right that the Presidential Administration receives many memos from both outside and inside its ranks. However, the question left unanswered is the degree to which the document is representative of the way the Kremlin thinks now. And this is more important than the question who and where exactly wrote the document. The only reason the Novaya Gazeta went ahead with the publication of the document is because they feel that the document does reflect in many significant ways the current Kremlin’s philosophy. So though technically you are correct with your smack down of Goble, in reality he may be closer to the truth than you appear to claim.

        Whoever authored the document is really a minor matter. But whether both the US and Russia has already entered a hot proxy war is of extreme importance for understanding of what is going on in the US-Russian relations and Ukraine. So far NATO military aid, including that coming from the US, was extremely limited and only, I repeat, only of symbolic nature. As a criteria for describing the war in Ukraine as a proxy hot war for both the US and Russia it is set too low. It would mean that the US and Russia are permanently involved in a proxy war of some kind against each other. So it is a proxy hot war for Russia but not yet for the US. Finally, one would misrepresent the nature of the Korean and Vietnam wars by characterizing them as proxy hot wars between the US and Russia, though they had all the necessary elements of proxy wars. First and foremost they were US wars in Korea and Vietnam, just as what is happening now in Ukraine is a Russian aggression against Ukraine.

      2. I feel, that we must be aware that the driving force behind the developing Ukraine drama is the US’ strategy to neutralize Russia, having a military regional HQ and bases on Crimea for starters, and next continue its drive to the Caspian basin and the oilfields of Central Asia.
        We also must be aware, that after WW II the western allies never won a major military engagement. Our tally is tiny Grenada and the Falklands. All other ended – after a brilliant initial campaign, I owe to that – ended in disaster and/or the main case for going to war unsettled.

  6. A very astute piece of writing, Gordon and a great contribution to the news coverage of the crisis in Eastern Europe.
    I wish I had come across it before.
    A joint connection in London pointed out your work to me.
    I have read it with great care and taken note.


    By the way, you might want to read this more recent blog from Reuters. I found it equally illuminating.

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